Joan McAlpine: Time to prise Scotland from the Crown Estate

IF I told you an absentee laird controls half of Scotland's sovereign territory you would be surprised. If you learned this individual collects rents from those using the land, but expects Scots to fund its maintenance, surprise might turn to anger.

Assets worth billions of pounds have recently been discovered on this vast estate. The Scottish people will subsidise the extraction of those assets. But our fabulously wealthy laird, who resides in splendour just off London's Regent Street, will pocket the proceeds.

Only one journalistic liberty has been taken in the paragraph above. The laird is not an individual. Rather, he is a faceless quango known as the Crown Estate. While laws passed by the Scottish Parliament limited the rights of private landowners - even the good ones - the Crown Estate, which is really a glorified factor, continues to operate like a robber baron of old.

If you are a small boat owner, you will be familiar with the Crown Estate, which manages a 6 billion property portfolio, including half of Scotland's foreshore and the seabed out to the 12-mile nautical limit. Many coastal residents, who have historically moored small craft near their homes, were shocked when the Crown Estate began demanding rent in the 1980s for what was considered a community asset.

Only this year the Crown Estate fought small boat owners on Bute in the Court of Session, using public funds. The islanders insisted the seabed was granted to them by royal charter centuries ago, but had no funds to fight the case.

Now many more Scots are going to have their lives touched by the Crown Estate. The potential of offshore wind, wave and tidal energy changes the game plan entirely. It belongs to us all, and we should all feel the benefits. But the Crown Estate website claims, erroneously, that this treasure, worth considerably more than mooring rents., is all theirs. The UK marine estate was valued at 409 million in 2008-9 and generated revenue of almost 50m, up 18 per cent on the previous year. A substantial part of that comes from Scotland.

What the Crown Estate does to earn this income is unclear. It is the Scottish Government which invests in attracting and supporting renewable energy companies. It is Marine Scotland, also funded by Holyrood, which maintains the seabed. But the Crown Estate gets the loot. Money from renewable wind, wave and tidal licences goes to its elegant offices in Burlington Place, W1, and then the Treasury just along the road. It is not earmarked to develop the industry, or benefit the Scottish people. Our seabed revenue is not factored into Scotland's block grant.

It is surprising that the Scottish Government has not challenged the power of the Crown Estate.

It is a subject close to the heart of SNP activists, and it fits perfectly with the current campaign for fiscal responsibility. My understanding is that senior civil servants in the rural affairs department are a cautious bunch who dislike change. Also, a minority government doesn't want to pick fights unnecessarily, particularly not with an organisation it needs to partner in the development of an important green industry.

But this caution is misplaced. There is the chance to build a cross-party consensus. The Liberal Party in the Highlands has spoken out against Crown Estate excesses for years. The West Highland Free Press, the radical newspaper founded by the former Labour minister Brian Wilson, has conducted a long-running campaign questioning its authority.

Andy Wightman, the land reform campaigner, has worked hard on the issue. He says the Crown Estate has pursued a successful strategy of confusion. Many people think the land belongs to The Queen. In fact, it is a public asset. In 2006, the Crown Estate review working group, formed by local authorities in the Highlands and Islands, urged Westminster to review the organisation's post-devolution role and ensure revenues benefited the Scottish people.

This March, the Treasury select committee at Westminster published its own, devastating report. It concluded that Scotland's territorial seabed and continental shelf area are defined and governed by Scots Law, and stated: "As a result of the Scotland Act of 1998, the Scottish Parliament can legislate over the extent and nature of Crown property rights in Scotland."

Effectively, it means we can pass a law ensuring the revenue stays in Scotland. This is what happened until 1832, when an Act of Parliament diverted the money south. Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man were affected by similar centralising laws, but have succeeded in getting their cash back. Only Scotland fails to reap the benefits of its long and lucrative coastline.

The election of coalition government in Westminster means we could repatriate the revenue without a Holyrood bill, however. A one-line change in the Scotland Act is all it takes. And remember - the coalition's Scottish representation comprises mainly Liberals from rural constituencies.

But the Crown Estate, which has a tiny staff in Scotland, is determined not to let go. "

The gold-plated quango is nervous as well as desperate. Dermot Grimson, its head of external affairs, warned this week that any questioning of its role in Scotland would threaten renewable energy jobs by causing "uncertainty". It sounds familiar, doesn't it? Vested interests cited "uncertainty" as a reason why Scotland should not have its own devolved parliament.

Grimson, who once headed Rural Forum, a campaigning group which collapsed owing more than half a million to creditors, is particularly nervous because Tavish Scott, the Lib Dem leader in Holyrood, is pushing for change.

Scott has promised to write to his colleague Michael Moore, the Scottish Secretary, calling for marine revenues to be devolved. He should be commended for doing so.

But the Crown Estate is trying to undermine his efforts by offering the Scottish Government a "memorandum of understanding" on the issue. That must not happen as it would pin us to an organisation whose interests are at odds with those of Scotland's people.

When Alex Salmond said we could become the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy, he didn't mean we should emulate its feudal system...

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